What does the spike in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions mean?

A 3.4 percent rise in anything may sound miniscule, but try telling that to the legion of concerned scientists who have been sounding the alarm about climate change for the past decade and this week learned that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose by that very figure in 2018-the biggest increase in eight years. 

The smallest spike in carbon emissions, they said, is cause for alarm. This increase, they explain, only hastens our planet’s journey toward an environmental nightmare of soaring temperatures, melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, more extreme heat waves, and an uptick in super storms. 

Published Tuesday by the independent economic research firm Rhodium Group, the report on the increase in U.S. carbon emissions is preliminary. But the 3.4 percent figure, based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and other sources, is added fuel for scientists who agree that the world must adopt stronger emissions standards to prevent a climate disaster. 

Carbon emissions increased in all four sectors as identified by Rhodium: buildings, industry, transportation, and electric power. And what is alarming is that the spike occurred even as U.S. coal-fired power plants closed at near-record levels last year, despite the Environmental Protection Agency rolling back Obama-era policies that imposed strict emissions limits and pollution standards. 

"In the scientific community the urgency has always been clear-if we want to substantially slow the warming of the climate, then dramatic reductions in CO2 are required,” said Ben Kirtman, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. 

But it is not solely a U.S. crisis, as greenhouse gas emissions have accelerated at an incredible rate around the world. China, for example, now produces 27 percent of the world’s carbon emissions-more than the U.S. and European Union combined. 

And if that number isn’t enough to cause panic, just consider that a recent report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the world has just over a decade to cut carbon emissions by 50 percent to avoid a 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warming above preindustrial levels. "We are already 1 degree Celsius warmer than preindustrial levels,” said Kirtman. "This is why this recent uptick in U.S. CO2 emissions is disconcerting.” 

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